In 1365, a baby girl, Christine, was born to Tommaso de Benvenuto da Pizzana, a municipal councilor in Venice. Christine was a fortunate young girl for her father believed in educating her. This was extraordinary for the time.
Christine was married at 15, but found herself widowed at 25 and with 3 children after her husband died from the plague. With no other means of support and no inheritance (her father died impoverished five years earlier) Christine turned to the pen and pursued a career in writing.
Her literary accomplishments were prolific; she served as the official biographer of Charles V, had a number of aristocratic patrons, and was one of the first authors to supervise the copying and illustrating of their works.
Christine wrote on a variety of topics, but the majority of her works can be set within two broad themes: peace and the recognition of women’s contribution to culture. Writing about peace isn’t that much of a surprise, Christine was a God-fearing woman of her time and her time was rife with civil strife. It’s her writing on the recognition of women, part of what was termed the querelle des femmes that carries Christine down the centuries and before us today.
The querelle des femmes, quarrel of the women, swirled around the court culture of Europe in the 14th century (1300 – 1400). At its centre was the most popular work of medieval France, The Romance of the Rose. Christine took exception to what she, and others, considered misogynist statements concerning women’s character. The Book of the City of Ladies is Christine’s commentary on the querelle. In it, she argues that if women had a hand in writing the stories of the past, those stories would be told different.
Christine employs allegory to tell her tale. The story opens with Christine in her library searching for a book of poetry when she comes across a small volume given to her with a number of other books. After browsing through its pages she is left wondering:
… how it happened that so many different men – and learned men among them – have been and are so inclined to express …. So many wicked insults about women and their behaviour …. They all concur in one conclusion: that the behaviour of women is inclined to and full of every vice (pgs. 3-4).
Well, Christine doesn’t quite buy it. She tells her reader that she knows the “natural behaviours and character of women” (pg 4) from all social strata: high-born ladies, middle and lower class women who tell her things and share their lives. Yet, despite what she believes in her heart, she concludes after investigating learned author after learned author: “…that God formed a vile creature when he made woman” (p. 5). Christine falls into deep despondency.
While sitting in her library preoccupied with her thoughts she is visited by a ray of light which raises her eyes to the vision of three beautiful crowned ladies standing before her. They identify themselves as: Reason, Rectitude and Justice.
Reason responds to Christine’s sorrow:
Dear daughter… have you lost all sense? Have you forgotten that when fine gold is tested in the furnace, it does not change or vary in strength but becomes purer the more it is hammered and handled in different ways? Do you not know that the best things are the most debated and the most discussed?
Reason concludes, “For you know that any evil spoken of women so generally only hurts those who say it, not women themselves”. (1.2.2)
Guided by their wisdom, Christine sets about laying the foundation and building the City of Ladies through revisiting the classic stories of women of the past. She groups the stories according to accomplishment or claim to fame: military and political leaders, ladies of learning and skill, vision and prophecy, faithful and steadfast wives, chaste and pious daughters.
I’m not going to go into all the women Christine rescues from obscurity. There’s too many; way too many. But I will share with you one of my favourites; the story of Dido.
Dido was the founding ruler of Carthage. She gave refuge to Aeneas and the fleeing Trojans after their defeat in the Trojan War. Under the influence of Eros, the god of love, Dido falls in love with Aeneas. She considers herself his wife and she offers him a share in her kingdom. After some time, Zeus visits Aeneas to remind him of his destiny – the founding of Italy – and to put an end to his dalliance with Dido. Aeneas prepares his ships for departure. When Dido realizes his plans, she reproaches him, “unfaithful man, did you think you could…..skulk from my land without one word” (Virgil, Aeneid, 4.305). Aeneas hid behind his son Ascanius, putting Ascanius and his future forward as the reason for his departure.
Dido, the woman who saved a defeated Aeneas and his men, who allowed them the space and the resources to rebuild their fleet, and who offered him a share in her kingdom as well as undying love, was cast aside. She implored him to wait for favourable winds, to give her time settle into her grief. But he said no; I must go now. As he sailed away, she instructed her sister to build a funeral pyre on which to burn Aeneas’ sword. However, Dido climbed up onto the pyre, fell onto his sword and died, suffering an agonizing death. She is often depicted as a woman lost in her emotion and senseless to rational thought; pulling her hair and crying to the wind as Aeneas sails off. That’s Virgil’s story. Christine has a different take.
It is Reason who introduces the story of Dido, the Phoenician royal princess who escaped the violent machinations of her evil brother Pygmalion (he murdered her husband, Sychaeus). Reason points out that Dido, then known as Elissa, settled the land that came to be Carthage by charming the people who lived there with her grace and generosity. They, in return, offered her as much land as she could gather up in a cowhide. Dido took the cowhide and cut it into a long, thin, continuous strip that she used to map out the circumference of her new kingdom. Reason concludes with the statement that Dido was a constant and just ruler. It is in the next book, when Christine asks if it is as men say, that women are unfaithful lovers, deceptive and malicious in love that Rectitude reminds Christine of the story of Dido and Aeneas:
…even though he had given her his pledge never to take any other woman and to be hers forever, he left after she had restored and enriched him with property and ease, his ships refreshed … filled with treasure and wealth, like a woman who had spared no expense where her heart was involved. He departed at night, secretly and treacherously, without any farewells and without her knowledge (p 109)
The Book of the City of Ladies. Christine de Pizan, Translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards, (New York: Persea Books, 1982)
A Medieval Woman’s Mirror of Honor: The Treasury of the City of Ladies. Christine de Pizan, Translated by Charity Cannon Willard, ed. Madeleine Pelner Cosman. (New York: Persea Books, 1989.
Susan Groag Bell, “Christine de Pizan in her Study” Cahiers de recherché médiévales/ Journal of medieval studies, http://crm.revues.org/index3212.html